When the Mariner boys basketball team walked into Frank Morris Memorial Gymnasium for a preseason practice a few months ago they found a ladder sitting underneath one of the baskets with a pair of scissors sitting on the top rung.
Tritons coach James Harris’ idea was simple. If his players could envision themselves cutting down the nets at the end of the season, a state championship became a realistic goal.
Now Mariner (25-3) sits one win away from making the school’s second appearance in the state semifinals with the belief it will be the last Class 5A team standing at the Lakeland Center next week. The Tritons face Tampa Jesuit (24-5) at 7 p.m. Friday at home in the Region 5A-3 final.
Following a 64-55 semifinal victory over Bradenton Southeast Tuesday, Mariner sophomore Jahmel Myers pointed to cutting down the nets in the preseason as the beginning of the team’s journey. Thus far, it’s featured a 20-game winning streak and a mostly dominant postseason performance.
“It’s a great feeling,” Myers said of being atop a ladder with scissors in his hand. “It’s definitely something I’d like to do at the end of this month.”
The Tritons’ belief it can win the program’s first state crown is backed up by the championship brand of basketball they are playing this season. Harris put emphasis on getting defensive stops and pressuring the ball while calling for a commitment to rebounding.
The results are eye-catching. Mariner is set to break the school record for scoring defense, giving up 44 points per game. The Tritons’ length in the paint has deterred teams from driving the lanes and instead settle for jump shots, pushing them to their third regional final berth in five years.
A regional quarterfinal game where Mariner throttled a 20-win St. Petersburg Gibbs team 63-37 was followed by a win over Southeast that tested its championship pedigree. The Tritons nearly blew a 16-point lead in the second half before settling down and making key stops late.
The last time and only time the Cape Coral school advanced past a regional final came in 1996 when a Teddy Dupay-led squad reached the 5A final where it fell to Daytona Beach Mainland.
“We’re looking to repeat history and then take it a step further,” Harris said.
Recent trips to the regional finals, including a 64-53 loss at home to St. Petersburg Lakewood in 2013, have marked the end of the road.
Having the game at home where the Tritons are 22-2 over the last two seasons against Jesuit, which won the last of its three state titles in 2013, puts the Tritons in a position where they have no excuses.
“There’s no better place to play a game,” Harris said. “We know we just have to keep doing what we’ve been doing, and we’ll get to where we want to be.”
Mariner in the regional finals
1996: Mariner 76, Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas 70
1998: Miami 106, Mariner 60
2003: Fort Myers 69, Mariner 62
2012: Plantation American Heritage 50, Mariner 57
2014: St. Petersburg Lakewood 64, Mariner 53